“The dead are alive.”
The words that flash across the screen at the beginning of Spectre have two distinct sets of meaning, one of which is apparent immediately and one of which will become so soon enough. The first is literal: As the words fade, the scene opens in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead.
The streets throng with crowds of dapper skeletons and chthonian floats. The camera finds its way to one elegant couple—the man’s skull mask only accentuates his air of intensity—and it follows them down the avenue. And into their hotel. And into the elevator. And into their room. And then, following a not-entirely-unexpected reveal, it follows the man out the window and onto the rooftops.
Long tracking shots may be a tad oversold in the wake of Birdman and season one of True Detective, but this one is a dazzler. Indeed, the entire pre-title sequence of Spectre—which also includes fisticuffs in a wildly spiraling helicopter over a crowded square—is magnificent, perhaps the best in the entire 24-film history of the franchise. At its conclusion, I turned to the friend seated next to me and whispered, “I could leave the theater happy right now.”
From there, the movie leaps from London to Rome to the Austrian Alps to Tangier and the Sahara, the plot trundling on along two parallel tracks which inevitably will bend to intersect. Abroad, a rogue James Bond (Daniel Craig) is trying to track down information about a diabolic global crime syndicate, Spectre, and its mysterious leader (Christoph Waltz). Back home, M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) must contend with a smarmy young bureaucrat who’s overseeing the launch of a panoptically comprehensive new global surveillance system. About all you need to know about this character is that he is played by the actor Andrew Scott. I mean fine, launch your dangerous new technology that will make all human privacy a thing of the past. But for God’s sake, don’t put Moriarty in charge of it. (And yes, this is exactly the same plot as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, right down to many of the particulars, including a snazzy, Triskelion-ish intelligence HQ on the bank of the Thames.)
Sam Mendes, who directed the previous installment of the franchise, Skyfall, returns for an encore and once again gives the proceedings an upscale gloss. But while there are plenty of pleasures to be found scattered across Spectre’s exorbitant two-and-a-half-hour running time—this is, after all, a Bond film starring Daniel Craig—the movie loses momentum at each stop and is flagging by its conclusion. Moreover, it makes a number of substantial narrative missteps, falling into some old bad habits and developing a few new ones.
Begin with the second meaning of “the dead are alive,” which is advertised as early as the title sequence. There, amid the customary naked ladies—here ickily accoutered in octopi—flash images of previous Bond villains Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) and Silva (Skyfall), along with Bond’s deceased love, Vesper Lynd, and deceased boss, the previous M (Judi Dench). In essence, Spectre is an elaborate retcon job, a bid to turn the Craig movies into a unified trilogy (yes, technically a tetralogy; bear with me). This is achieved principally by revealing that Spectre was secretly (and rather murkily) behind all the evil plots that took place in the earlier films. Or, as Waltz’s character explains to Bond late in the movie, “It’s always been me, James, the author of all your pain.”
The backward references to previous films are almost innumerable, and act as an accumulating drag on the current one. Dench even has a cameo in one of those “watch this video only after my death” scenes. Given the extent of the nostalgia-fest, it’s amusing that the film’s producers seem eager to have us forget about Craig’s less-successful second outing as Bond, Quantum of Solace. Among the literally dozens of references to Le Chiffre, Silva, Mr. White, Lynd, and M, they left in—perhaps accidentally?—just one glancing mention of “Greene,” Quantum’s villain.
This tying together of Craig’s Bond oeuvre—by the end, literally: as in, with string—is a decidedly poor idea, and its logic doesn’t hold up to even the most cursory scrutiny. But this is, I fear, a consequence of our current heyday of novel series, serialized television, and cinematic “universes.” It’s no longer sufficient for a movie to have a “plot.” Now it must have an “arc”—or rather, multiple arcs both within and spanning sequential films and even interrelated series. I tremble for the day when some enterprising young exec has the bright idea of cross-pollinating Bond with fellow Sony property Spider-Man.
Related to this too-tidy interweaving of the last few films is the decision by Bond’s custodians to give 007 an elaborate, tragic-orphan backstory. This intent was suggested in Skyfall, but Spectre takes it a great deal further. This movie’s villain is inserted into that tale, too, such that he is the author not only of Bond’s spyhood pain, but of his boyhood pain as well. Here I must voice a strenuous dissent: Bond is not Batman; he does not need an origin story. Ian Fleming himself described 007 as “an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.” (Or as my friend and colleague James Parker memorably characterized him, “a bleak circuit of appetites, sensations, and prejudices, driven by a mechanical imperative called ‘duty.’”) He is, in any case, best left a cypher, beyond the realm of causal psychology.
Even as Spectre offers dubious new wrinkles to the franchise, it unlearns some of the crucial lessons of its recent success. One of the chief delights of the Casino Royale reboot was how aggressively it pushed back at the tropes that had been weighing down Bond movies for decades: the endless womanizing, the gadget-laden cars, the secret lairs. As Le Chiffre told 007 before smashing his groin with a knotted rope, “I never understood all these elaborate tortures.” Spectre backslides on virtually every one of these fronts: the women, the super-car, the villain’s secret hideout in an arid crater (!), and his endless monologuing as he subjects Bond to the most elaborate torture since Auric Goldfinger threatened him with a Lasik circumcision.
Are there enough good moments to make up for these lapses? Yes, there are: a dizzying car chase in Rome, a Spectre meeting that falls just this side of camp (it’s like an Eyes Wide Shut party in which everyone keeps their clothes on), an alpine chase in an aircraft fuselage, that astonishing opening sequence. Dave Bautista is a solid heir to the brotherhood of Bond heavies such as Oddjob, Jaws, and Robert Shaw’s underrated peroxide assassin, Donald “Red” Grant. Fiennes does a creditable job of trying to fill Dench’s fundamentally unfillable shoes. And Monica Bellucci is beguiling as a beautiful widow. (Her: “Can’t you see I’m grieving?” Bond: “No.”) By contrast, the movie’s principal love interest, played by Lea Seydoux, alas makes almost no impression at all.
But ultimately, of course, it all comes back to Craig himself. This is likely his last outing as Bond—part of the reason, no doubt, for all the wrapping-up—and the question of whether he or Sean Connery most owned the role can now begin to unfold in earnest. But regardless of who next buttons the tux and holsters the Walther, the lesson of Spectre is a simple one: Let Bond be Bond and the mission be the mission, without the need for connective arcs and tragic backstories. Next time, let the dead stay dead.